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99% of people, 99% of things, events, dogs, whatever.

99%

Recently I used what is to me as a Brit a pretty common figure of speech, saying "99% of people would x", meaning simply that the vast majority of people would x.

However this seemed to cause massive confusion amongst Americans who began asking where I got that statistic, that they had read a number closer to 70%, etc... Taking it all very very literally.

I am wondering, does this figure of speech have no currency in the Americas? Or were these particular people just being obtuse?

Googling around brings me no answer, just a few cases of people using it, oddly however I do find a wiktionary page for "51 percent" meaning a slim majority which is not one I've ever heard before. Is this one common in the US?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 17 '17 at 20:52
10

The OP asked: I am wondering, does this figure of speech have no currency in the Americas?

The cliché “99 percent of + noun/noun phrase" is also used in the US.

From a self-help book entitled: I Will Teach You To Be Rich

Avoid those credit card offers you receive in the mail. [...] Out of every thousand students who are mailed offers, 150 accept them, an astonishingly high number. [...] Let's get real. Taking a credit card offer you get in the mail is like marrying the first person who touches your arm—99 percent of the time it's the easy decision, not the right one. Most people know better and go out and find what's best for them; they don't just settle for the horrible offers that fall in their lap

Later in the book, the author Ramit Sethi, shares this citation

I believe that 98 or 99 percent—maybe more than 99 percent—of people who invest should extensively diversify and not trade. That leads them to [a tracker] fund with very low costs.

Warren Buffett

In neither of the cited examples is the expression 99 percent (99%) meant to be taken literally. It is only a generalization, not a real statistic.


Musings

There are cases of course when the figure "99%" is used in its most literal sense, suggesting that the remnant 1% is both paltry and negligible. We hear of detergents and hand sanitizers killing 99.9 percent of all known germs and bacteria. But is citing "99 % of X" always a legitimate claim if it is backed up by hard data such as a study or a survey? Aren't many of these 99% of X claims spurious, facile, or just PR stunts? Consider the following:

  1. "In fact, the latest information that we have shows that in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, April 19th, 2015

  1. “Well, I guess if you look at the population of the countries that are represented in this particular agreement with Iran, the vast majority–the 99 percent of the world, is on the side of the United States and international partners in implementing this agreement."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, Jul 19, 2015

  1. In one of two new ads released Thursday, Apple shows an array of happiness that has rarely been seen—even in Apple ads. […] The voice declares that 99 percent of people who own an iPhone love their iPhone.

Chris Matyszczyk, contributor to CNET, July 10, 2015

Do all Americans believe 99% of iPhone owners love their phones? Do they believe that 99% of the world support American's foreign policy? Reality suggests otherwise. My hunch is that the vast majority of Americans recognize a rhetorical claim when they see one.

  • 1
    These two examples show a good contrast in how a statistic can be used. The first is a disputable claim of fact that is not based on data as a statistic should be. This is a false statistic. The second is clearly communicating an indisputable impression. The impression may be wrong but no one can claim the speaker doesn't have enough data to tell you their impression. – candied_orange Aug 16 '15 at 20:19
  • The first example is not a statistic, it's just a figure of speech. An overblown statement that captures the reader's attention. The second is still not a statistic, the economist is expressing his (valid) opinion. – Mari-Lou A Aug 16 '15 at 20:22
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    I hasten to disagree. A claim to be merely a figure of speech must be used unambiguously so. Otherwise I could tell you any lie I like, and, when challenged, claim it's only a figure of speech. Thus I get the benefit of the gullible believing me literally and the skeptics still can't touch me. – candied_orange Aug 16 '15 at 20:31
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    There will always be people who really believe that a survey was conducted and its findings revealed that 99% of people who accepted a credit card deal did so because it was an easy decision. Luckily, I believe the vast majority of people recognize a "flamboyant" statement without getting themselves into a frenzy :) – Mari-Lou A Aug 16 '15 at 20:47
  • Tell that to the naive people who accepted the credit card deal :P – candied_orange Aug 16 '15 at 20:51
35

The problem is that "99% of x" does have currency with Americans. When used hyperbolically (not literally) you are counterfeiting that currency.

The easiest way to lose an argument is to overstate your case. By using a false statistic, rather than a much fuzzier expression like "vast majority", you make it easy for critics to take cheap pot shots at your argument.

Rather than this being merely about your critics being pedantically literal, be aware that there is an entire educated community of scientifically minded Americans who object when scientific disciplines such as statistics are abused for the sake of argument.

I'm sure that 99% of Americans would agree with me =)

EDIT:

To be clear, I'm not claiming that Americans do not use the expression (heck I just used it). I'm claiming that using the expression without hard data to back you up is problematic. In certain cases such expressions, used without hard data, are actually illegal.

Scientists are constantly put in a quandary by this practice because they need simple expressions to convey ideas that have the weight of hard data behind them. When such expressions are co-opted by those who do not have hard data it diminishes both the expression and science itself.

I'm 99% sure that the Americans who disagree with me work in advertizing.

EDIT2:

Come to think on it, a great many scientific advancements come from the British people: radar, computers, and television to name a very few. I can only assume that, unlike us Americans, the educated scientifically minded British people haven't corrected you simply because they are too polite to do so.

99% of Brits probably think I'm pandering to them at this point but as long as they keep making Dr. Who I'm happy.

  • 7
    I suspect the reason why people would object in some situations is context. If you're saying "I'm 99% sure", no-one's going to object, but if you say "99% of Americans use this phrase" some people (possibly even me, depending on my mood) will correct you. I'm British, btw. – PointlessSpike Aug 17 '15 at 12:45
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    I'm British, and have (in a previous career) been a scientist, and i can confirm that while a few people might find this expression irritating (if it's not literally true), most people just accept it as an idiom, ie not to be taken literally. I think that scientists and statisticians are less likely to use the expression, but if they did, in a non-scientific context, most people (less than 99%, though) wouldn't mind. In a lot of cases it's used ironically, perhaps in reference to successful advertising campaigns. Personally i think it's a dumb expression. – Max Williams Aug 17 '15 at 13:49
  • You're right, and I think it stems fro the pervasiveness of false statistics in our culture. It sets off a flag even for people who agree with the speaker. – JFA Aug 17 '15 at 21:49
  • Actually I work in statistics. Though it wasn't at work that this situation popped up. I think the source of my believing it could be a US thing rather than just some random guys being knobs thing, was that Brits tend to speak a lot less literally than many other countries. Statistics is not being abused in the statement "99% of perms look horrible", it is merely being referenced. – the other one Aug 18 '15 at 7:18
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We use "99%", in the states, but probably not as "99% of people," - more like:

"99% of the time, that would've worked."

-or-

"99% of the time, she's the last to leave the party." (US)

16

I think this depends a lot on context and phrasing: Does it sound like you are engaging in poetic exaggeration, or does it sound like you are claiming a literal number.

Like someone said in the comments, if you were chatting about the difficulty of getting up in the morning, and you said, "When the alarm goes off, 99% of the time I just turn it off and go back to sleep", I don't think anyone would understand this to be a literal number. I've said things like that and heard others say things like that many times. If someone really challenged you to back up this statistic with documentation, I think most others in the conversation would think this person a little crazy.

On the other hand, if you were discussing politics and someone said, "This country should pursue policy X", and you replied, "But 99% of the people are against X", the other person might well interpret that as an attempt at a literal number and challenge it.

I'm sure there are cases where you could make a statement intended to be poetic exaggeration, and someone else could misinterpret it as a literal number.

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    Exactly. It depends what X is, and on the rest of the context. – chasly from UK Aug 17 '15 at 8:01
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    It all depends upon the type of person making the claim. Salespeople and marketing people are known to exaggerate percentages in the 50-70% range up to 90% because this equates to "practically 100%" in their mind--anything less would lose a sale. Anyone expected to deliver a project will claim that the first "90% is completed" which means that, actually, 50% is completed. Software development joke -> Outsourced programmer: 'The first 90% is now complete and we are working diligently to finish the other 90% at this time.' – Michael Blankenship Aug 17 '15 at 18:11
  • @MichaelBlankenship I don't think the software development joke is about exaggerating progress, but about underestimating the amount of work that has to be done after the core feature is "complete". Testing, handing corner cases, database migrations and general polishing. – CodesInChaos Aug 18 '15 at 9:07
  • @CodesInChaos - and also "Feature creep". – Kevin Fegan Aug 18 '15 at 9:40
4

As an American, I hear "99%" all the time. The usual case is when a speaker would like to say "everybody does X," but is aware that such a statement is easy to refute with a single example. By assigning a percentage to it, the speaker admits that there will be some cases where the declaration does not fit, where you can find someone who doesn't do X.

Usually the pattern involves 9's, and the more 9's the more confident the speaker is that exceptions are outliers: 90%, 99%, 99.9%, 99.99%, all the way out to 99.9999%, which is "six-sigma" in statistical speech, and has become a favorite number for process engineering. I've also heard 95%, and I've also heard 98%, which as best as I can tell is "I'd say 99%, but I'm not quite that confident."

  • 2
    Six sigma is 99.99966% – JoeTaxpayer Aug 17 '15 at 13:57
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    @JoeTaxpayer Thank you for keeping me honest! I've not actually taken the time to run the numbers against a Gaussian distribution. I think it gets rounded up to 99.9999% because "six-nines" and "six-sigma" seem to be a good branding approach. However, I'm totally going to have to poke and prod my six-sigma coach about this one when I see them next! =D – Cort Ammon Aug 17 '15 at 15:18
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    What annoys me most about that "x-sigma" stuff is that it's meaningless without knowing the underlying distribution. Not every distribution is Gaussian. – CodesInChaos Aug 18 '15 at 9:13
  • @CodesInChaos Agreed. I've seen processes fail spectacularly because someone made a correction under the assumption that a variable was gaussian and it was not. – Cort Ammon Aug 18 '15 at 15:42
  • It's pretty unrealistic for almost any distribution assumption to hold out to that many decimal places--which is why six-sigma is popular in management and not engineering. :-) 99% of people agree. – jimm101 Jan 6 '16 at 15:40
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99% of the time

"time" here is in its uncountable form. So 99% of it is a vaguer unit than

99% of people

where "people" is countable, and there is a correspondingly greater implication of accuracy.

  • 4
    What's wrong with this answer? 99% of people is a statistic. 99% of the time is an expression. – Mazura Aug 16 '15 at 18:59
  • 3
    They are both statistics and both expressions. I'm 99% sure. Well, plus or minus 99%. – candied_orange Aug 16 '15 at 19:02
  • In such an expression, "time" usually means "occurrences". If someone was speaking literally and said, "The Democrat won the election 65% of the time", I would understand that to mean that if there were 100 elections, that the Democrat won 65 of them. (Or 65% of whatever number there were.) It could also mean elapsed time. Like, "The temperature here is below freezing 40% of the time." If we counted the total amount of time, the temperature was below freezing for 40% of that. – Jay Jun 28 '16 at 6:08
1

If it's something that is generally believed by almost everyone besides a few crazy exceptions, you may say “Any reasonable person would…”.

If it's more about an opinion that people can have (like more around 70% of people as you mentioned in your question), but the popular opinion is one thing while the dissenting opinion is less common but still possible of a reasonable person, you can say something like “Almost everybody…”, “Everybody I know…”, or “Essentially everyone…”.

1

This is not really about national or cultural differences.

99.9% is an over-used figure of speech. It gives the impression of being a true statistic, when it is more a ploy of advertisement. We've been inundated with infomercials that sell us on ideas by using high numbers to convince us that we should buy things to be safer, prettier or healthier. Basically, anything above 90% is seemingly good, as it means top rate or ACE. Does that truly make it more valueable?

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB126092257189692937

Since the issues are about the point being made, the person you are trying to convince of this point or both, the statistic itself is fodder. People with analytical minds will question what you are saying when you use a statistic.

If the point is far-fetched to the listener, the listener questions either your statistic or questions the validity of your point as having no proof of the numbers. The supposition is that in using 99.9 percent, whatever follows is a gross exaggeration. Using such a statistic harms credibility. When you use unproven numbers as proof of truth, by default what you are trying to prove is discredited.

If what you are saying is well-received or agreed upon, there would be no contention. It just may be that more Americans simply do not really agree with your point, not so much the statistic itself. They will try to make sense of what you are saying, or will have a difficult time believing you at all.

And what of that .1%? Some people are skeptical about that .1%. By focusing on that .1%, they will will challenge your opinion. Since, some people love competition when meeting people from other cultures, this would definitely be an example of people being obtuse.

Percentages have more credibility when the speaker has a profession where quoting statistics is a normal behavior and fact based. Random percentages are opinions. This is reminiscent of when people say "Everybody does it" or "Always" or "Never". These are overstated absolutes.

Try dropping the percentage and just making the statement and see how it goes?

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